First "audiophile" system, now what? Suggestions for best "bang for the buck" upgrade?


After being beguiled with mp3s and the TV AVR, I finally realized I missed having a dedicated stereo system. With a budget of $2400, here is what I put together:
  ProJect Carbon 1 w/TizoAcrylic platter and Ortofon Red cartridge,
  Hagerman Bugle2 preamp,
  Vincent V-60 tube amp,
  Martin Logan 12 speakers.
 No special wires or cables. My room is 14x19 that is open to the kitchen. Compared to what I had been hearing, this system sounds fabulous. But now I want more fabulous. So I am writing to seek help on making short term/long term plans to upgrade. Short term means the biggest improvement in sound that costs $500 or less. The long term plan could cost maybe $2-3k or more. I have read that going from Ortofon Red to Blue might be a an inexpensive but very noticeable improvement? If speakers are my weak link, then maybe Martin Logan electrostatics would be good (when my ship comes in)?
I welcome any suggestions.
Convert?fit=crop&h=128&rotate=exif&w=128etwilley
try some tube rolling
without knowing how your set up is interacting with the room it's impossible to say what you can do to make it better. Investing in upgrades without being able to qualify the results is throwing money out of the window. My suggestion would be to invest in something like DEQX...they have many levels of DSP and offer room, speaker correction. Tubes will have a noticeable impact..
Thanks for the response. The DEQX looks like a useful addition but I think my system may not be worthy as is. I know my needle is rather basic entry level, so I was thinking I would start there. Later, if I had substantial cash, I should look for a good speaker match for the Vincent. Any suggestions?
Do you have any room treatments? Anything to absorb or diffuse reflection of sound waves on the walls? 
Describe the layout, where are speakers located, listening position, carpeting or hardwood, furniture position.

The room can be thought of as an additional component to your system.
My room is rectangular 14 x 19 with one short end open to a large kitchen. The speakers are near the corners of the far/small end, out from the walls. The room is carpeted with drapes and leather furniture. Speaker placement/sound seems very good, sound carries well, the length of extended space and sounds rich in the 'golden triangle', nice range and imaging. But it is a "family" room not a dedicated music space. At the moment, kids and wife are tolerating the intrusion but I don't think I can change the layout much. I was thinking since this is my first real system that others more knowledgeable than myself would look at what I have and say.."well the first thing you need to do is....
First, Welcome Etwilley. 
Second, maybe you could post some pics of your 'sound room' on Agon.
That would help us determine if you need some change in placement or adding sound treatments.
Since you now enjoy the sound you have, you probably have things placed well, but a small change sometimes makes a big difference. 
I can sympathize with your need to accommodate the rest of the family- My system is a 'best compromise' for sound vs. living space.
Your system looks good. So, could you tell us, what do you feel is lacking? Have you listened to other hifi systems?
HTH Bob 
Nice to have you on board the good ship Audiophile! 

Your solution is contained in your post. You seem to dismiss cables as efficacious elements of a high end rig. I have had the pleasure of changing the opinions of industry members (read manufacturers - well known ones) and 4 or 5 engineers who mocked cables, but now pursue aftermarket cables for their purposes. 

I suggest you put your $500 to work on procuring a set/loom of cables for the rig. It will collectively be as important sonically as the addition of a new component. It is one of the easiest and most effective steps a person can make to obtain better sound. 

If you disagree, I'm not interested in debating the subject.  :) 
I agree with DS; it's the obvious initial step.
First, congrats on realizing AVR's and mp3's are great for sound effects and convenience, but for pure music reproduction, dedicated stereo systems are the best way to go.  So, nice system you have put together to start enjoy music the way it's meant to be heard.

WRT the next upgrade, the transducers (cartridge at the front end and speakers at the back end) in a system will always give the biggest impact on how a system sounds.   So you have probably answered your own question in your initial post - upgrading the cartridge from a 2M Red to a 2M Blue should provide the best bang for your buck that's within your current budget.  A nude elliptical is a big step up in performance from a bonded.  Next would be the speakers and that would strengthen the two so very
important transducers in the chain.

Good luck.

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Before I would spend any money, I would contact John Rutan at AudioConnnection in Verona, New Jersey.  He's extremely knowledgeable, and willing to help all us audiophiles that don't know how things interact, what the next step should be, etc.  Its worth a phone call...he loves to schmooze, and you will certainly benefit.
@phil9624 - WTF are you talking about...?!?!
I second stringreen. Johnny R is a good man to talk to. His Agon name is 'audioconnection'. PM him.
The comments about interconnects are also another way to change the sound of your system, though you will need to research and trial many in order to come to some understanding regarding their appeal/detraction in your system. Johnny R could also help in this matter.
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" I have no problem with vinyl, was buying Japanese in 1980 and still have my 35 year old JVC QLY5F.  But I sold most of my records and only keep it around to demonstrate to friends that the best digital today sounds ....analog."

What "best digital" are you demonstrating to your friends? 
Your analog reference for this comparison is a QLY5F...?

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I'm just saying that to present digital to your friends in combat with analog then it should surely be the Vivaldi 4 box system from dCS...with of course suitable cables. Additionally it is not sufficient to represent analog with a QLY5F. 
I wasn't even born in 1967 so fair play to you sir for building an amp.
You have been given a wealth of great advice already. I will say in 35 years in this wonderful hobby, the biggest difference maker in my systems has always been speakers. Amps, yes. CD players, yes. Cartridges, to a point. The room, certainly! However that's a bit tricky to tackle with a family and real world issues. Personally, I'd look to speakers first that are compatible with your amplification....

I’d save up for better speakers. Lots of options open up when you have $2k to spend. Also - don’t limit yourself to just Martin Logan.
Good Day Etwilley,

If you are absolutely serious - embrace that this hobby is a series of long term strategies that require patients and knowledge.  If you want the best bang for the buck, start by investing in Power, Power Power. Realize that $500 is not going to much of anything for you at this stage.

Take the $500 save it, start a fund so that you are making sage decisions on building a solid power delivery system. Power cables, power distributor - not conditioner, Interconnect cables and speaker cables. Once you have that set, then look to the components, speakers etc..

You will save significant amounts money by working from a position of strength. If you know you have great power feeding your system, the easier it will be for you to know which components / speaker etc. are the best for you in the long run. Enjoy your journey and have fun.
That's very sound advice ggc(no pun intended). I concur.

Hello @etwilley, 

I suggest you invest your short term funds in room treatment.  You can improve the sound in almost any room.  If your room has problems, almost no audio system will sound good, and certainly not its best.

The easiest place to start is probably putting either absorption or diffraction panels on the sidewalls. You can find a good position by having someone hold a mirror on the sidewall. Sitting in your listening position, where you see the tweeter (and midrange) is where to put the panel. You can always adjust later if needed.

If you are handy, you can DIY several panels for about $150 or less. I use Roxul Safe n Sound (IS 1.5” panels preferred because they are denser and have similar sound absorption properties.) for absorption and acoustic fabric to cover.  You can place additional panels on the front wall behind the speakers if needed.

If you have bass issues, traps can help improve the sound balance of the system. Easiest way to set, is to you play a consistent bass track and wander around the room. If you discover peaks and valleys, or your listening position is not “right,” then the traps will help a lot. The bas traps can be constructed the same way, just double or triple up the Roxul IS panels. 

If you DIY the panels, you can use your leftover funds on entry-level audiophile cables which are probably a good investment. As @ggc stated above, power is important and often overlooked.

Enjoy your new hobby, but be warned, it is addictive!

You are receiving a lot of sage advice so far. I beg to differ on a couple of points. One being cables/power etc. While this can certainly enhance (and protect) your system, your question was "bang for the buck". In my experience, cables, power cords etc. yielded subtle (if any) improvements in sound. BTW, different isn't always better. Again, in the "bang for the buck" category, look to your speakers. That's where you will reap the greatest rewards for your $$.
Mogami cables.
Install a dedicated line before anything else. Not expensive and you could even DIY - I did. 

In my experience, cables, power cords etc. yielded subtle (if any) improvements in sound. 

Which did you try?
A quick story about speaker cable. I'm going be memory but here goes, at an audio convention a dealer was demoing a McIntosh system, I do not remember the configuration exactly. Listeners were remarking on the exquisite sound with the typical "transparency, inner detail, micro dynamics" etc. comments. The gent who had the display quietly laughed to himself as his speakers cables were modified Belden extension cords...This is not to be a diss on exotic cables, just relating a real world story...
Lots of good advise posted, but, IMHO, a very important, (and inexpensive) step has been overlooked. Make sure that your turntable/cartridge/tonearm are set up correctly. I recently helped a friend who has an old Orcle Delphi of mine with a Rega RB250 and Ortofon 2M Red. I spent an hour or so dialing it all in for him, and he called me later that day to thank me for the work, and to let me know that it was like having a whole new rig. Just sayin........
I'll agree with those who say to save for better speakers. A speaker upgrade will take your system to a much higher level.
However, for the short term and not much money, an upgrade to an Ortofon Blue will be a noticeable improvement to your analogue.
Contact these guys and ask for Joe, regarding auditioning a set of interconnects and speaker cables, based on your particular system/components: (http://www.usedcables.com) Personally, I recommend either Kimber or Synergistic Research’s entry-level stuff, to begin with. There’s a 5% of sale price, "rental" fee, but- I’ll bet you find the experiment well worth it. If you have any, "ears" at all, you’ll hear more music. If you can’t recognize any improvements, then- forget about it!
I'm not sure what speakers you have now. The ML 12 is a sub right?

There's no doubt in my mind, room acoustics. Take some pics and send them to GIK Acoustics and they will put together a very nice package for your budget.  After that, if your ML is a sub, an EQ from miniDSP.

You may go through dozens of speakers and interconnects, and phono cartridges, but the Acoustics will be there for always.

Best,


Erik
Wow, I went away for few days and got flooded with advice. Thanks so much. Mostly reinforced what I suspected are best next steps. So here's my plan:
1. Better needle. Swap Ortofon Red for Blue (nude elliptical). The needles use the same cartridge, so the needles can just be swapped. Many folks report that the improvement in sound is very noticeable - for $150 - looks like a bargain to me.
2. Should say better speakers next, but instead I think I may be able to improve the power supply. Much of this I think I can DIY. It may be a modest improvement but may also be a modest expense with free labor.
3. Now better speakers. Problem is the Martin Logan 12s were originally $1500 a pair and I got them new (discontinued) for $400. I'm guessing that I would have to spend upwards of $2500 to get speakers that would sound substantially better, unless they are used and I'm leery of buying used speakers.
4. Better turntable (VPI?) after the novelty of the ProJect 1 Carbon w/acrylic platter wears off. It has issues with motor hum, but it looks cool.
5. High end cables/ wires are last on my list. When my components are better matched, and I have a dedicated listening space that I can customize, maybe then my ears will hear the effect of better cables.
6. I think I will be growing into my amp Vincent V60 for a long time. I think I was lucky to find it for auction on Audiogon. Self biasing 60w tube amp, TAS integrated amp of the year(2010?) for $1200. I think it is the best piece in the system by far.
So the needle upgrade is a forgone conclusion for the most pressing upgrade; what I really need to know is if anyone has experience finding a good speaker match for an integrated tube amp such as the Vincent V60 so that I can start dreaming now? Perhaps this should be a new thread?
Welcome! etwilley
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Start a new thread regarding the amp and new speakers. List your system and your plan to treat the room.
There are many specifics when matching a tube amp with a set of speakers. A new thread will bring valuable advice.
I believe you have made great purchases on that Vincent amp and the speakers as well. I would be inclined to keep the amp. The question is how your speakers mate with it. This I don't know, however believe it to be what lowrider is alluding to.

I agree (as i posted on another of your threads) that the stylus swap will provide for the greatest upgrade return on investment. 

If room treatment is an option, try some DIY methods. Might want to look up ATC Acoustics, Piper City, Illinois. I have made my own panels with there supplies. 
Lots of experienced advice here.  I don't know where you live, but if you are in a metropolitan area where AC quality is questionable, then a cost-effective power filter/conditioner might make the greatest difference .  In the end, the sound our stereo produce is a direct product of the AC coming to you from your power company.  The more distortion/hash on the incoming AC line, the poorer the performance of your other components.

For the record, it looks to me like you've made sound system decisions so far.  Clean power will allow your entire system to shine!

With your current equipment and if you have good ears you should easily be able to hear differences in cables now. It is not necessary to have ultra-high end gear to hear cabling changes. My systems when I first delved into cables about 30 years ago were by no means high end, and yet in every one cables were obviously noticeable. This is to encourage you that you do not need to put off that decision, if you wish, due to perception that your gear needs to be much higher performance. It is wrong to presume that one needs to have much higher performance gear to hear the effects of cable swapping. 

Thanks for the compliment, I needed that. I put together this system over the last 6 months and the whole proces has been wrought with anxiety and second guessing. I don't have the luxury of a brick and motor store to listen and compare equipment, so all of my ideas came from looking at what was listed on Audiogon, then reading reviews, which then mention other equipment, so maybe something else is good, so read about that, then read a conflicting review, then try to read between the lines. Hours and hours and hours of late night research (I'm guessing most here can relate to), then finally having the guts to make a buy and hoping when it arrives that you get what you thought you were getting. 

I do know that my records and CDs (and FLAC files) sound very, very good. Well mastered vinyl sounds as good or better than digital files on this setup, and it all sounds really, really good and looks cool (which is part of the equation for me). So I'm happy......but what about a better needle?.....then better speakers?.....then better tuntable?...then power supply, then cables, and DAC?... Once its is sounding as good as I've got right now, then the rest will be just more fun. And money.

Thanks for all the good advice.
Etwilley,

Loved reading your post above.  You're right.  The vast majority of us who care enough about audiophilia have walked the same road that you are now on.  You did the research, you took that absorbing path leading to a purchase.  As good as your system sounds now, and I have no doubt of its musicality, if you are like most of us, you WILL walk farther down the road as your listening experiences reveal how much better it can get.  I speak from recent experience after making my first speaker purchase in 22 years.  Until I experienced my new transducers with my system I never would have known how good it can get.  I WAS satisfied with my other speakers for all of those years until these babies burned in.  I hope you get to have such moments of aural surprise as you continue to realize what's possible.  Enjoy the journey!
There's never enough money is there.
So if you want amazing speaker cables on the cheap you could try what I did. I had a whole lot of used Cat5 cable (saw a good review of measured outputs of various cables) get six Cat5 cables for each speaker 25% longer than your needs. Twist two together x3. Then braid those three twisted pair. The real diy fun is separating the dark from light at both ends, striping, and attaching banana plugs. Be sure to purchase a continuity tester ($15) to make sure a stray wire didn't cross over (do this before you attach banana plugs) plus it's an amazing work out in your wrists. You'll look like Popeye when you're done. 
I am also impressed that there are a lot of guys out there keeping the cost down on amazing equipment like Sandy Gross with his Goldenear speakers. I also wanted the most bang for the buck for cheap. 
PrimaLuna Prologic integrated tube amp, Sony HapS1, and Goldenear Triton Ones, my homemade cables, power conditioner, and good power cords. The variations and recommendations are endless so enjoy YOUR journey. 

How is the imaging? Top to bottom? Left to right, front to back?

In whichever dimension that is lacking, add diffusers and absorbers.

Best,

Erik
ewilley, You have been given a lot to think about in the above posts, for sure! I would add the fabulous Spin-Clean record system for about $100. Then try to find the right dish drainer (I bought a cool bamboo one at Target) to finish air drying your records as you wash more. 

I recently bought a used ultra-sonic record cleaner. I had been thinking about upgrading a fantastic MM cart that cost me $1,200 for an MC cart in the range of two to three grand. But, wow, running my seemingly clean disks through my new machine has been a huge sonic upgrade to my analog front end! The Spin-Clean may not be quite the system as my Audiodesk Systeme, but it will get you most of the way there and I guarantee it will be about the best $100 improvement you can make in what already is a very promising system.